Sarah Flier worked as a special education paraprofessional for the Minneapolis School District after earning her undergraduate degrees in psychology and studio art from St. Olaf College in 2004.
She loved working with the students but wanted to use her psychology degree. “A family friend who was a school counselor encouraged me and helped steer me into applying to University of Wisconsin-Stout’s master’s in school counseling program.”
Flier earned her master’s from UW-Stout in 2007. Based on recent events, she made the right career choice.
Flier is beginning her eighth year this fall at Willow River Elementary in Hudson as one of the nation’s top school counselors. She was named by the American School Counselor Association as one of five finalists for the 2021 National School Counselor of the Year award.
She is the first Wisconsin school counselor to be recognized as an ASCA finalist in more than 10 years.
“My mission as a school counselor is to ensure all of my students feel seen, safe and successful,” Flier said in a statement to ASCA.
Collaboration for student success
In fall 2019, Willow River Elementary set a goal for 65% of students to meet their English/language arts target goal on the Measures of Academic Progress state exam.
When the school noticed an achievement gap for students who were socio-economically disadvantaged – only 45% of third-graders met the ELA target – Flier collaborated with her School Counseling Advisory Committee, the Willow River Parent Group and staff to develop the Literacy Toolbox Book Club, a program which ensures home access to books for all WRES students.
“The Literacy Toolbox is a program we use to provide books for students whose families may not be able to afford to purchase books from the Scholastic Book flyers that go home each month,” Flier said. “The idea is to build home libraries for students to increase their love of reading and books.”
The Book Club is administered through the school counseling program. With donations accepted through the Literacy Toolbox Go Fund Me, 25 students in kindergarten through fifth grade signed up to select and receive a book each month.
Books were purchased through the fund and delivered to the students’ lockers. And in spring 2019, 76% of third-graders had reached their target goal in the ELA assessment.
In the 2020-21 school year, 20 students participated in the Book Club, with many of these students improving their reading scores over the year, Flier said.
“Ms. Flier has an abundance of energy, natural ability, magnificent rapport with students and staff, and no end to creative ideas,” said Willow River Principal Kimberly Osterhues.
A nationwide need
According to ASCA, about 111,000 school counselors serve 50.59 million K-12 students across the country, approximately one counselor for every 455 students. At Willow River, Flier serves 320 students, kindergarten through fifth grade. Previously, she was a middle school counselor in the Cumberland School District for seven years.
Carol Johnson, professor emerita with UW-Stout’s School of Education, believes “school counselors are needed more than ever to help students who may be facing many challenges. School counselors offer the support for academic, social-emotional and career planning to help students this coming year and beyond. Counselors make a difference.”
UW-Stout’s school counseling program is approved by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and is ranked one of the top six programs in the nation. Its on-campus facilities offer hands-on experiences in the Clinical Services Center and Play Therapy Lab. Students may enroll full-time or part-time, and daytime, evening, online and summer courses are available.
Adreanna Johnson had Flier as a counselor and has known her for 10 years. “Mrs. Flier shows all of her students that life should be a ride that you love, and you never want to get off of, so do all things that make you happy and let your light shine. I am proud to say that she has helped me grow into the person I am today.”
No two days are ever the same, said Flier. But that’s one of the things she likes best. She loves connecting with students, families and staff.
“I feel fortunate to have a career that is so fulfilling. I get to greet students in the morning and hear their stories of lost teeth or new pets, be silly teaching classroom lessons and be the one that students come to when they need a safe space,” she said. “The most challenging part of the job is the emotional stories I hear and the lack of control to change the situations some students are in.”
Flier has worked with several university interns in their school counseling practicums, including from UW-Stout. They bring fresh ideas for lessons and groups to benefit her students, she said.
“As a professional, I tend to forget why I do some of the things I do – it becomes a natural part of how I operate,” she added. “To consciously think and explain my method and theory to interns helps me become an even better counselor.”
“We are deeply appreciative of the mentoring Sarah has provided,” Johnson said. “Practitioners in the field are the best mentors, as they provide our interns with the experiences needed to develop into full-time professionals.”
Acknowledging support and compassion
Olivia Carter, of Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Mo., was named the 2021 School Counselor of the Year. Other finalists along with Flier were Vanessa Goodman Barnes, Millbrook Magnet High School, Raleigh, N.C.; Megan Bledsoe, Discovery Middle School, Vancouver, Wash.; and Barbara Truluck, Palmer Middle School, Kennesaw, Ga.
Because of COVID-19, Flier and the finalists celebrated their nominations from their homes in a series of virtual events, briefings and webinars during National School Counseling Week last February.
“It’s been a pretty incredible past year with the recognition. Getting the call to let me know I was a finalist was unreal,” Flier said. “The First Lady Dr. Jill Biden said my name in the online gala. That was pretty incredible, and I did not see it coming.
Flier was able to celebrate with Carter, Bledsoe and Truluck in July at the national conference in Las Vegas.
“Making connections with passionate counselors has been incredible, and the recognition has given me a platform to speak from on the important role of school counselors,” she added.
“Our work is often misunderstood because so much of what we do is behind the scenes or cannot be shared publicly due to confidentiality. In being recognized, I hope it starts more conversations about what key players should be at the table when we are considering our students’ mental health and well-being.”
ASCA, founded in 1952, has a network of 50 state and territory associations, including the Wisconsin School Counselor Association, and a membership of nearly 40,000 school counseling professionals.